The rice and wheat that Indians are eating today might actually be of low nutritional value, says a latest report by Down To Earth magazine citing a recent study led by scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
“For the past 50 years, India has been introducing high-yielding rice and wheat varieties at breakneck speed to achieve food security. The ICAR-led study has examined the food value of these modern grains and reports that breeding programmes focused on developing high-yielding varieties have altered the nutrient profiles of rice and wheat — to the extent that their dietary and nutritional value has gone down,” says the magazine.
The study has gone ahead to assess the health impact of this “historical shift” in nutrient profiles of rice and wheat, and warns that the impoverished staple grains could worsen the country’s growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
When the Green Revolution began in India, the aim was to feed the rapidly growing population and to become self-sufficient in food production. Hence, the main motive of agricultural scientists was to improve yield.
The 2023 study is an extension of another study that scientists from ICAR and Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya conducted in 2021. The study explored the reasons for zinc and iron deficiency in populations dependent on a cereal diet — high-yielding cultivars of rice and wheat, when tested, revealed a downward trend in grain density of zinc and iron.
The 2021 study also showed that the increase in the proportion of the global population suffering from zinc and iron deficiency over the last four decades coincided with the global expansion of high-yielding, input-responsive cereal cultivars released in the post-Green Revolution era.
Reporting on the study, Down To Earth says that in the past 50 years, the concentration of essential nutrients like zinc and iron has decreased by 33 per cent and 27 per cent in rice, and by 30 per cent and 19 per cent in wheat, respectively.
What’s worse, the concentration of arsenic, a toxic element, in rice has increased by 1,493 per cent.
“In other words, our staple food grains are not only less nutritious but also harmful to health. Amid continuous genetic tampering under the modern breeding programme, the plants have also lost their natural evolutionary defence mechanisms against toxins,” says the Down To Earth report.
The depletion of essential nutrients in staple grains could result in a higher prevalence of diseases related to neurological, reproductive, and musculoskeletal systems.
What is India Doing to Bolster Nutrition?
Significant efforts are being made in the country to improve the nutritional profile of food grains. Agricultural scientists have turned to landraces and wild species of cultivated varieties for answers.
Under a special project on bio-fortification, launched by the union government, scientists at ICAR and other agriculture universities have undertaken germplasm exploration to find donor varieties that are high in nutritional content.
So far, institutes under ICAR have developed 142 bio-fortified varieties.
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